Brushing up on my Turkish with Duolingo

A long time ago, back when I began learning Turkish, I downloaded and tested a couple of language learning apps. Duolingo wasn’t one of them, but I was generally unimpressed with the accessibility of language apps when being used by people who need access technology. Just to be clear – this is usually something that could be fixed by inclusive design, rather than a problem with the access technology.

I didn’t think any more about it until one of my friends started talking about Duolingo and how he was going to test it out to help him learn German.

I used to have Turkish lessons every week, and I was quite proficient at one point –at least reading and listening to it –speaking was always my least favourite activity. But life happened and I hadn’t done anything with it for about 5 years. I thought if the app were accessible, it might be a nice thing to try. So I downloaded it as well and have been using it for just over a week. This is what I think of it so far.

Mixture of tasks

I was a language teacher who didn’t take her own good advice. I worked extra hard on the things that I was already good at, and neglected those that I wasn’t. This meant that I got even better at reading, and neglected speaking. It’s a bad idea!

This isn’t the app for you if you only want to work on one or two skills – one of my students told me today that he didn’t like it because there was too much emphasis on writing – but I like the way that you get a mixture of tasks. The subjects are broken down into topic areas and you are asked to do things like:

  • Matching pairs of words in your native language with words in the target language.
  • Listening to a phrase and selecting those words in the target language.
  • Reading a phrase and selecting those words in the new language.
  • Translating a phrase from the target language to your native language.
  • Translating a phrase from your native language to the target language.
  • Speaking a phrase in the target language.
  • You don’t know what order the tasks will come in and you can’t influence it, which means you get a good mixture. Actually, you can ensure that you don’t get either speaking or listening tasks for one hour if you’re unable to speak or listen at that time. I don’t know if you are penalised for repeatedly doing this.

    So, this way of doing things keeps the lesson interesting, and it also prevents people from focussing too much on the things that they find easiest.

    Learning or revising

    I do think there is a big difference between learning and revising. This kind of app is great for me because I’ve had a good foundation in my Turkish classes and what I’m doing with the app is revising existing knowledge. Ok, I’ve learned some new words – I don’t think I ever knew the words for turtle or crab before, but I understand the grammar and the mechanics behind how the words fit together, or which circumstances mean that a word gets extra or different letters. There are explanations and it’s possible to ask questions in the forums, but for me this is more of a supplementary method to practice and develop something I already know, rather than a way of learning a whole new language. I like the flexibility of being able to ask specific questions, look for relevant vocabulary to me, experiment with different ways of saying things, and knowing exactly why a mistake was a mistake. I don’t feel that an app like this ticks all of these boxes, so I would be less likely to use it for a completely new language.

    Having said that, I’ll exhaust the Turkish materials sooner or later and I’ve paid for a year’s membership. So who knows – maybe I’ll try the Dutch course afterwards. Still, I think I’d want something else to go alongside the app if I decide I’m serious about learning Dutch.

    Points and motivation

    I won’t go through the whole system about how you gain points, but you gain more points the more lessons you complete and the less mistakes you make. There is a system of hearts, which are like lives that you lose each time you make a mistake. I have a subscription, which means I can have unlimited hearts. This means I still lose points for mistakes, but I don’t have to stop learning until a new heart appears in my account.

    You can see how you are doing in relation to a group of 50 learners. Last week I didn’t know anyone on my board, but I wanted to move up into the next league. Another learner and I were both after 5th place at one point and seeing that she’d overtaken me on the score board was a motivation to do a couple more lessons. I ended up in fourth place and the top 15 moved up into the next league. The gamification can definitely help with the learning, but the learning needs to come first. I can’t be stressing out about what other people are doing on the board, or letting it take over my life when I should be doing other things! I have that kind of personality that really focuses on the numbers, so whilst it’s definitely a motivator, I need to make sure I’ve really learned things and not just be in the pursuit of more points!

    You can also use your points to buy new hearts if you don’t have unlimited ones, and some languages allow you to unlock more content with the rewards that you gain for completing levels. Unfortunately there isn’t any bonus content for Turkish yet, but there are some stories that you can buy if you’re learning German. I think it depends on how popular the language is and whether any additional content has been written yet.

    Accessibility for blind users

    Overall I have been very impressed with the level of accessibility for this app. Turkish is supported by VoiceOver, the screenreader used for iPhones, and all of the Turkish content is used in the Turkish voice. There are a lot of languages and I can’t comment on how well they are supported with VoiceOver.

    Blind users can do all of the activities. Sighted users have a bit more help in the matching exercises because of the use of pictures, but blind users can take advantage of the information in the tips.

    Having witnessed a sighted user using the app, I think that someone using VoiceOver is likely to be slower. This is not a fault of the app – it’s just that working with a screenreader means you need to read everything as we can’t scan the screen as sighted users can. If I want to compete with sighted users, it may take me longer to get my points, but ultimately it’s not about that – learning is my real goal!

    Another small thing is that I need to memorise the sentence I have to say because I can’t review it once the record button has been pressed. This is also not something that the designer needs to fix – it’s just one of those things. If it becomes too much for me to remember, I’ll just quickly write the sentence down on my laptop and read from there.

    The only thing I struggle with, and which caused much cursing when I lost points, was that occasionally there is a delay when it comes to recording the spoken tasks. If you press and hold the button and there is no delay, you get the usual press and hold sound. If there is a delay, a sighted person can see that the app has not started recording yet, but a blind person can’t. This means that I sometimes started speaking too soon, had finished speaking by the time the recording started, and as a result lost the point – even though what I said was right. I have suggested to Duolingo that a sound could be played once the recording had started, and a representative replied very quickly to say that my comments had been passed on and they were looking into it.

    The only other minor thing is that if you are learning a language that has short stories (Turkish doesn’t) the buttons are not labelled correctly for screenreader users – they are all just called “button”. This could easily be fixed in the coding of the app and would bring the stories up to the same standard as the exercises. To be fair, I’ve only looked at the German stories, so can’t comment on others. This doesn’t make the stories inaccessible though – you have to click the button to the left of whichever option you want to choose.

    But overall I’m impressed and think that they did a really good job at designing an accessible app.

    Final thoughts

    Using the app has definitely helped me to get back into the swing of doing some Turkish every day, and this is what you really need if you want to get better at using a language. Little and often is good, and that’s exactly what you can do with this app – whether you put in 5 minutes at a time or half an hour. You’ve got it on your phone, so it’s always with you if you find you have a bit of spare time for language practice.

    There’s a lot of repetition, which helps when it comes to memorising new words.

    I like the variety, and I like the fact that you’re given tips about alternative answers or small typing errors that didn’t cost you a point, but that you should look out for next time.

    I am slower at typing on my phone than my laptop. That’s a fact. As long as I’m not writing long texts, I can live with that. I think I’ve shied away from using apps for language learning because I don’t enjoy chatting on my phone, but this is just individual sentences, so I don’t mind.

    The speaking tasks are good for pronunciation, but not for spontaneous speaking practice. This isn’t something that can be measured like the other activities, and I don’t think this is a need that an app like this can meet – which comes back to my original point about using this app as part of a language learning strategy, rather than relying on it entirely. I’m not just saying that so as not to put language teachers out of a job! I think there is value to be gained from spontaneous communication with others in the target language, and I also benefited a lot from working with a Turkish teacher so that you really understand how the language works.

    But when it comes to practicing – absolutely – I am definitely learning new vocabulary and getting back into the swing of thinking in Turkish.

    Finally, Duo is an owl, so it has to be good! Right?

    Have you tried Duolingo?

    If so, what did you think? If you’re using it now and want to be friends, let me know and I’ll share my ID.

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Why I’m glad that I learned languages at school

I can’t contribute much to the current debate about whether the new language exams are too hard – I haven’t seen them. I do remember though, back when I did my school exchange with a school in Germany, and based on my experience of teaching current German students, that the expectations seem lower here in terms of what students should be able to accomplish in another language. Lowering the bar might make the subjects more appealing again, but overall, English students won’t have a competitive advantage in the job market if the language qualification doesn’t count for as much, or require as much effort as other European counterparts have had to put in.

I was at school before the decision was taken in 2004 to make languages a non-compulsory subject at GCSE. I think there are individual circumstances in which this makes sense, but overall I believe this was a step in the wrong direction. Since then, take-up of languages at A-levels has also been falling overall, with German falling by 45% since 2010 *see this article from the Guardian). Still, things are looking up for Mandarin!

I’m biased, because languages were some of my favourite subjects, but here are some of the reasons why I enjoyed learning languages at school.

They opened up a new world and new people to talk to

Knowledge is only really useful when you find some way to take it out of the classroom. Many people don’t do this or don’t have the opportunity to, which is why I think some students in the UK feel that learning another language isn’t relevant.

Once I got a taste for languages though, I started finding reasons to use them. My German pen-pals. My school exchange and the lovely host family. Some German relatives of local friends. Later new people that I met online. I got to travel outside my local town and discover other perspectives, other ways of doing things, and challenge some of my own ideas.

Something I could be good at

It wasn’t the smartest choice, but at school I always spent extra time on the things I was already good at, rather than using it for the things where I really needed more practice. But I enjoyed languages and however well I did in them, there was always more to learn and discover. There were things that I needed help with in everyday school life, but I understood how the languages we were learning worked, so I had something to offer others too.

I like patterns!</h3

I have creative moments occasionally, but languages made sense to me because if you take some time to learn the rules, you will be allowed to play the game, and importantly, not make mistakes. There will always be exceptions – “exceptions confirm the rules” was one of our German conversation teacher’s favourite sayings! But rules give things structure, and if you can understand the structure, you can understand the thing. There’s a logic to it – you just need to invest a bit of time at the beginning.

My blindness isn’t relevant

Ok, it may have been relevant for picture-based learning activities or watching movies, but we didn’t do much of that at school. My listening skills probably came in useful, and as long as I had access to the texts that we were working on, it was a completely level playing field, in a way that some more visual subjects weren’t. This may not have been the case if I’d been learning languages with different writing systems – there is always a way – but for French and German it certainly wasn’t a consideration. I did both at GCSE level and then went on to do a German A-level.

I think it was one of the first times I realised I could do something that the sighted people around me couldn’t do. I remember interpreting for some friends and feeling really good about being able to facilitate the conversation between people who would otherwise not have been able to communicate. They helped me get around the unfamiliar places that we visited, but I had a role to play too – and that made me happy!

Learning other languages helps you to understand your own language better

Training to become an English teacher definitely does that as well, but when you start learning about tenses, sentence structure, and ways to communicate ideas in other languages, it helps you to understand how your native language works too. If you’re a language nerd, it’s interesting to see the differences and similarities.

They were useful for my career

Well, German was. I haven’t done anything with my French since leaving school, but I remained interested in German. For many years it was just a hobby – something I did in my free time. Originally the only suggestions people could come up with were interpreting (too stressful), sales (not my idea of fun!), and translating. Translating was the most appealing out of the three, and I do some translation now, but I didn’t want to spend all of my time doing it.

I now work as an English teacher for adults, most of whom come from German-speaking countries, so I speak and write German every day. So the basic knowledge that I picked up at school is still helping me now, though it took longer for me to actually feel comfortable speaking.

Other languages

After finding out that I enjoyed learning languages, I tried a couple of others after I left school – Hindi and Turkish. German is the only one that I really kept up with, although I can still understand a fair bit of Turkish. I keep saying I’ll maybe go back to it some day.

I think understanding basic principles of grammar – having parts of the language that perform different functions, and the fact that you have to do things in a certain order for the language to work, also makes it easier for me to understand the coding languages that I’m learning in my IT degree.

So overall, learning languages opened up a lot of opportunities for me and it was one of my favourite things to do at school.

How was the experience for you? Did you love or hate your French or German lessons, or did you learn a different language? Have you used the skills since? Let me know in the comments.

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